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The Secret History of Costaguana

1 rating: 4.0
A book by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Praise for THE INFORMERS 'A fine and frightening study of how the past preys upon the present.' John Banville 'From the opening paragraph of The Informers, I felt myself under the spell of a masterful writer.' Nicole Krauss 'Juan Gabriel Vasquez is one … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
1 review about The Secret History of Costaguana

A history, a love story

  • Jun 12, 2011
Beginning in the last century, driven by French ideas and American dollars and the world's desires, the Panamanian isthmus was crossed first by railroad and then by the monstrous undertaking of an ocean to ocean canal.  

At the beginning of this century,  Joseph Conrad, a Polish writer self-exiled to London to write in a second language of English and imperialism, wrote of a fictional country called Costaguana.  

Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez weaves this two stories together in this fascinating "secret history"--but what he tells is the life story of Jose Altamirano.  Speaking through the narration of Altamirano, a fellow Colombian who played a role in both milestones of Colombian history, Vasquez's delicate, deep, airy, and humorous account is in the end a love story, to whom and why I will leave to the reader to learn by reading this secret history.

Some explication:  The best lay source for the history of the isthmus and the canal is David McCullough's Path between the Seas (see my review here), which Vasquez references in his author's note.  I even found, in a cursory look back through McCullough's narrative, that Vasquez has lifted some phrases which in both McCullough's and his own narrative read as both literally and figuratively as beautifully true as could be phrased, so Vasquez has chosen well.

And of course, one should go back to Conrad's Nostromo, the novel that gave Vasquez his title.  While not as lean or crackling with horror as his better known Heart of Darkness, it has the humid smell of the tropics in its sometimes ponderous pages.  An excerpt from my review:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, Conrad expends many thousands in his cinematic writing style of "turn on the camera and describe everything" in a seemless opening framing shot.  Bogged down by too many words (for some things, the visual media like film and painting are more appropriate), the story really doesn't start cracking until the scene is set and the action starts.

Then, a classic tale emerges of a 3rd-world South American country (modeled on Paraguay, supposedly) racked by constant revolution, and peopled by native Indians, long-entrenched Spanish, and newer expatriate groups of English, Germans, and Italians.  One Englishman, Charles Gould, and his beautiful and elegant wife, are drawn to the country (Charles was born there but left for school in England) by the San Tome mine concession.  This concession was granted to Charles' father at a time when the technology and instrastructure would not support mining operations, but the government still extracted royalties from Gould Senior until it broke him financially and physically.

Returning to the country after his father's death with his new bride, Charles sees an opportunity to make the mine work, and does--to the detriment of his life, his wife, and his companions.  The plot action revolves around a shipment of silver stored waiting for shipment, and its disposition in the face of yet another revolution sweeping into the city from the hills.  By the end, the silver has destroyed a woman's soul and taken two men's lives.

Powerful insight into value and worth and the pursuit of dreams. 

Interestingly, when I read the book some years ago, I had read that Conrad based his account on the true history of Paraguay, not Panama.  The literal truthfulness of Altamirano's claims that he had influenced the history of both the canal's isthmus and Conrad's novel are of course irrelevant to Vasquez's purpose and abilities as a storyteller.  Still it helps to have some passing understanding of each before embarking on the journey.  

But in the end, you will find a love story, to whom and why I will leave to the reader to learn by reading this secret history.

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